Ernest Dudley Martin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1843 the second son of William and Sarah Ann Smith Martin. He matriculated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania with the class of 1864 but did not complete his degree, leaving during his junior year. While enrolled he was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma and gained membership to the Union Philosophical Society. He left to pursue medical training at the University of Philadelphia, and by January 1865 he was applying for a position with the U.S. Navy as an assistant surgeon. He was examined at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia and passed as qualified on March 9, 1865 and was appointed as acting assistant surgeon with a monthly salary of $104. He was ordered to the receiving ship Princeton at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in mid March; he was then required to take passage aboard the USS Bermuda for Key West, Florida and to report for duty as a relief surgeon aboard the USS Fort Henry. His orders changed several times soon after, however. First, he was ordered to take passage from New York to Florida aboard the USS Florida, then, while in New York, he was detached from his assignment to the Fort Henry, and was instead to await orders in New York in early June. In the meantime the Civil War had ended, and thus he resigned his acting commission and received an honorable discharge on October 9, 1865.
In March 1866, Martin again made an application for the position of acting naval surgeon. He signed his name as a medical doctor and this request bore the endorsement of medical faculty members at the University of Philadelphia. He again passed the examination on March 30, 1866, and was re-appointed as acting assistant surgeon on April 27, 1866 at the age of twenty-two. Soon he was back on the USS Princeton in the Philadelphia Yard. He received his commission as full assistant surgeon on the active list from the U.S. Senate and President Johnson on June 18, 1866. Martin then spent several months at the Philadelphia Yard as a relief surgeon aboard the USS Constellation, which had replaced the Princeton as receiving vessel for the port. On December 7, 1866, he reported for duty at the New York Naval Yard hospital. He took a week's leave in April and September 1867 to visit his family before receiving orders for sea duty aboard the USS Powhatan, then the newest and most powerful first rate ship in the Navy. His new ship was part of the Pacific Squadron, however, and Martin traveled aboard a mail packet from New York to Cellao Bay in Peru and then by the USS Fredonia to Valparaíso in Chile where he finally joined his first sea assignment on November 27, 1867.
Ernest Martin's naval career was to be tragically short. The Powhatan sailed from Valparaiso to avoid an epidemic of yellow fever, only to reach Panama where the fleet suffered an outbreak. Sailing again to protect its men did not prevent the deaths of several officers and crew, including Ernest Dudley Martin, who died on July 16, 1868, two weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday. He was buried at sea.